Karlovy Vary Film Festival Interview With Artistic Director Karel Och – The Hollywood Reporter

With Europe gearing up for the start of the official summer holiday season, cineasts, casual film fans, industry insiders and stars alike are once again getting ready to descend on the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary.

After all, whether they are from the Czech Republic, Hollywood or elsewhere, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival has positioned itself as one of the summer destinations showcasing new film gems from Central Europe and beyond, as well as the best of the film festival circuit of the past year.

Karel Och, who has been the artistic director of the festival since 2010 and is heading into his 23rd edition working on and for the event, has been particularly busy this year, with his team picking through a larger-than-usual number of submissions.

In an interview with THR’s global business editor Georg Szalai, Och explained this wave of movies, discussed selection criteria and rules, ensuring a programming lineup offering variety and diversity, why Karlovy Vary is a great place to visit and see movies, and how his team ensures to properly put the spotlight on and treat stars making the trip to the big Czech fest.

Karlovy Vary is one of the oldest film festivals but has really earned a reputation and successfully carved out a unique space for itself since the Fall of Communism. You have worked for the festival for more than two decades. How do you see its development and how key is Karlovy Vary’s focus on bringing audiences both highlights of past festivals and putting the spotlight on new films, especially from Central Europe?

It’s my 23rd festival. I have worked here since 2001 when I entered this building for the first time, the brutalist building of the Hotel Thermal, which was built for the festival. From the bird’s eye view, it has the shape of a movie camera, so it’s very particular.
The festival was born in 1946. During the Communist times, there were some important discoveries, especially from the so-called “Third World” countries, but overall, you could not really talk about freedom of speech, and everything was controlled obviously. So, in the early 1990s, what we witnessed was a second birth of the festival.
Shortly after the Fall of Communism, there weren’t many opportunities for Czech people and people from the ex-Eastern bloc to follow especially arthouse cinema from all around the world. So the festival became the field where people could just go and watch all the great stuff from all around the world: Venice, Cannes, Berlin, other festivals etc.
At the same time, the festival started to be more and more important, and new films were coming in, not just local and regional films, but also from other continents. And that ambition grew. And now we have two competitions, packed with world premieres from around the world. But at the same time, we still consider it important to keep explaining this ambiguity of the festival. I think we are the only one from this category of festivals, similar to San Sebastian, Rotterdam or Locarno, which is screening so many films from other festivals or films, which have enjoyed a premiere somewhere else already. We have about 50 to 60 films like that.

And you are happy with that mix…

We want to keep this referential element of the festival where people just go to a cinema and they just want to see a good movie regardless (of where it has or has not screened before). But of course, the ambition is to attract as much of the industry which we have been quite successful at, especially in the last 10-15 years. That ambition is even stronger. So we are trying to combine these two important aspects of the festival.

Your Proxima competition made its debut last year and aims to be a space for bold works by young filmmakers and renowned auteurs alike. It replaced the East of the West competition, which was established in the 1990s with the goal of helping filmmakers from the former Eastern Bloc. You said in the past that your goal was to open the window to submissions from around the world. This year, for example, Proxima features 10 world and two international premieres, with nine fiction features and three documentaries from the likes of Swiss auteur Thomas Imbach, French director Émilie Brisavoine, Poland’s Olga Chajdas, Cyprus-born Kyros Papavassiliou, and Romanian documentary maker Alexandru Solomon, among others. Can you explain why bringing more voices from around the world to Karlovy Vary is such a key goal?

We have always tried to cover as much from around the world as possible. And of course, there is a certain country or certain continent being represented stronger one year than another. It’s fluid. One of the most important milestones of the last decade for the festival was the fact that we decided to change the second competition, formerly known as East of the West. That was born as a tool to support Central, Eastern European, post-Soviet, Balkan countries in the moment of transformation, which was not just institutional or political, but also social. And when it comes to mentality, we felt our task or mission was completed, and it was time to move on. Also, the filmmakers from our area kind of challenged us that they wanted to compete on a global level, not just in the main competition, but both. So by redefining the second competition to Proxima and opening it to the entire world, we offered basically more space for premiering movies. This year, we can already see the difference in the depth of the submissions.

Tell me more about how submissions have developed since the end of the COVID pandemic.

We usually receive about 1,600 submissions. This year, we received 400 more submissions compared to last year, which is a lot if you consider not just watching the films, but also the related agenda, the emails and stuff like that. I spoke with colleagues from other festivals. It’s similar. They also received a higher number of submissions. When it comes to Karlovy Vary, I think it’s a combination of this global aspect of finishing the films after the pandemic, things are kind of normalizing in the good sense of the word. And also we have the redefined Proxima competition.

Does the Karlovy Vary festival have any programming policies or rules, whether it is about screening or not screening streaming films or showing movies from Russia due to the war in Ukraine. What kind of selection or other policies does your team have?

The only policy is that we try to have as few restrictions as possible while respecting obviously the rules of (international film festival regulator) FIAPF. There are certain elemental rules, one of them being that it must be at least the international premiere for a film in the main competition. This might be a little controversial, because you are putting limits on the intention of the movies and on the kind of movies. But at the same time, when we talk with the filmmakers, they say “keep these rules because it means that you guys will have to go and proactively search for new films.” So that is something that we understand. We have most of the films in competitions as world premieres. But if there is a movie that comes to us from a country, which has a local festival right before Karlovy Vary, and we still have the international premiere, then we are okay with that. So in the case of a German film, we often share it with the Munich Film Festival, which takes place shortly before us. So it’s something that we can discuss.
We used to do this with Sochi for Russian films, but obviously, the situation has changed because of the political situation. We have a film from Sundance in the competition this year, Fremont, that had its world premiere in the Next section in Sundance. So, we take it easy. We try not to blackmail the teams of the films with limitations.
Then, of course, there are other restrictions. This year, obviously, we would never screen a Russian film, which was made with financial support from the state of Russia. These are the rules which come with the necessity to react to what’s going on in society and politics.

How do you think about the importance of the theatrical cinema experience versus streaming?

It’s hugely important. It’s kind of part of the DNA of the festival. We obviously follow trends, and we opened our own VOD platform last year, called KVIFF.TV. But it’s not because we are extremely passionate about VOD. We understand its importance, we adopted the whole ecosystem of VOD, but it’s a little bit in order to control it. We understand nowadays that what we want to do is to combine the cinema experience with VOD in terms of reaching certain people who are unfortunately not able to watch movies in a cinema. But they can support each other. It doesn’t have to be either-or, or opponents. One can nurture the other. So we do a lot of things combining the festival and the platform. We even acquire films for these two platforms. But it will always remain very important for us to foster the cinema experience – in all generations, and not just with the fans of Karlovy Vary, which have been with us for decades, but also for youngsters.

Tell me a bit more about your offers for younger audiences and families...
We have several programs of short films for kids in the cinema. This year, we are celebrating 100 years of the Walt Disney studio by screening the very first Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from 1937 in a cinema which is a chance for people especially from Karlovy Vary to bring their kids and to let them know that there is also a screen which is bigger than the TV in the living room.

Your lineup includes some films that are serious and thought-provoking, but there are also some more outlandish-sounding movies, including in the Midnight Screenings, such as Captain Faggotron Saves the Universe. How do you balance the serious, the fun and maybe even the wacky?

It’s instinctive. What we want to do is to show the whole variety of the aesthetics and of the genres. We know that you can get excited from a Bruce Lee movie as much as from a Nuri Bilge Ceylan movie, and often it is the same people who get excited by both. And we are the same. So I work with my colleagues (to present a lineup that is) as diverse as possible. What we have always cared a lot about is that every single movie in the program has a certain purpose that filmgoers and festival visitors should understand.

How do you mix getting something interesting for the Czech audiences, as well as international film industry visitors? Does that ever cause challenges or create conflicts?

I would lie if I said that it’s always been easy to combine the cosmopolitan and local aspects of the taste, or of what we try to communicate as the taste or as our message. But somehow throughout the years, through communication with the audience, we have succeeded to make the audience understand the cosmopolitan aspect of the local, or vice versa. Local doesn’t have to be kind of exclusive, but it can be understood as enriching, or exotic in a good sense, or particular, interesting and diverse. Whatever is diverse should be interesting for people. Often, I feel the answer here isn’t as sophisticated as the question, because we do things with instinct, with passion, without always thinking strategically, but I’m glad it works.

Let me ask you about the international stars you have coming to Karlovy Vary for the festival every year. This year, the fest is welcoming and honoring Alicia Vikander, Robin Wright, Ewan McGregor, and Russell Crowe, plus it is paying homage to legendary indie film producer Christine Vachon. How do you pick who gets lifetime honors each year, and how important is it to the Karlovy Vary festival that you fete them not just as film stars, but creatives in a more comprehensive sense?

There’s a world inhabited by the people that we admire. Artists are actors, actresses, filmmakers, but also directors of photography, music composers – everybody who contributes to making a movie, which is what we live for. So if you live for movies, inevitably, you want to celebrate those who make your life more interesting by making movies. Fortunately for us, among these people who make our lives more interesting are many that combine the celebrity aspect, if I simplify, with intelligence, and we admire them for that. We admire them for things that they do as part of, and apart from, their main occupation. So we had John Malkovich introducing his fashion line a few years ago at a fashion show. This year, we have Russell Crowe performing with a band, the same as we had Tim Robbins a few years ago. Often, we screen directorial efforts by actors.
So there is this group of people that we admire, and we are in communication with their agents, managers, publicists, and they know about us. Often they are not available because they are working in the summer. But once they get available, they like to come because they know they will be taken care of, there’s a good audience that expresses how they feel about them, and it’s relaxing. We understand that they are working a lot. And to come to a film festival, if it’s not for a new movie’s premiere, which often is a work commitment, we are taking away a bit of their free time. So we want them to feel that they did not lose the value of the free time they have in between work, so we try to make it as nice as possible for them.

In addition to the concert by Russell Crowe, you also have Morcheeba performing on Friday, the opening evening. How key a part is music of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival?

Music is an element that is present because we have crowds of young people. We don’t put music on the level of films here. But every now and then, like this year, the musical sidebar becomes a reason for many people to come. If you go for music, and then you smell a bit of cinema, we might get some new fans. This brings me to the most important musical moment of the festival every year. In 2015, when we celebrated the 50th edition of the festival, we decided to do something new. We said, okay, let’s cancel the opening party in the Grandhotel Pupp, the posh, beautiful party, and let’s stay in the streets with the people. So we have, as the real center of the festival, the Hotel Thermal, the brutalist building that I mentioned before. There is a space outside which can fit 20,000 to 30,000 people if you count the whole triangle, and we included a big concert there. In the first year, it was a local rock band, and there were 40,000 people. It’s for the people, it’s free. it’s a gift of the festival to the people. We often have the Philharmonic Orchestras playing music for Milos Forman movies or James Bond, whatnot, different kinds of musical performances. This year, it will be more complex, because we first have Morcheeba, then we screen the opening movie, and then we have the Russell Crowe band. So it will be a long and I hope satisfying evening.

Speaking of satisfying: do you have any recommendations for something I should try to do while in Karlovy Vary outside of catching films and music?

This question brings me to a crucial aspect of every film festival. One of the most crucial aspects is the location. We are lucky to be in a relatively small city that is condensed. It is an old spa city, so it has a very interesting charm. Everything takes place between the Thermal Hotel and Grandhotel Pupp, two icons of the architecture of different eras that you walk in between. And every year there are lots of new different things, like a prosecco place, or a new cafeteria, which life of a filmgoer easier, because it’s all walkable. Unless you want to enjoy our festival bicycle system, which allows you to rent a bike without paying anything if you return it within three hours, and it’s connecting the cinemas, etc. If you have a few free hours, you should do a little hike, because we are in the valley, and it’s very beautiful. You can reach, in 10 minutes, these little hills, which you can walk around and relax after an exhausting, depressing movie before going to see Captain Faggotron at midnight. So you can digest your film experience by walking around.

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